Journal: What It's Like To Specialize In Restoring The Mighty Mercedes-Benz 300SL

What It’s Like To Specialize In Restoring The Mighty Mercedes-Benz 300SL

By Michael Potiker
July 25, 2016

Photography by Michael Potiker

Hjeltness Restorations is one of those places you have to see to believe. I’m here to talk about a car where the same holds true: it’s just an unbelievable story—even for a Mercedes-Benz 300SL “Gullwing”.

The shop itself has been in business since 1984, and in that time completed Pebble Beach-quality restorations on Bugattis and Delahayes, specializes in classic Mercedes, and includes the entire family in the process. I’m speaking with its founder, Jerry Hjeltness, who has completed more than 50 body-off restorations since the shop opened—and now is able to watch his son Eric find his own passions with classic machines.

Yeah, and about that 300SL…

MP: What’s the first car you remember driving?

JG: Hmm, let’s see, a 1946 Ford Coupe.

MP: Were you part of a “car family” growing up?

JG: My brother was three years older, and so he was in with the early hot rod guys in our town in California. Since I hung out with him, I ended up hanging out with them and getting involved in the hot rod scene.

MP: So your brother was into hot rods? How’d you go from there to the Gullwing?

JG: My brother bought a Gullwing in 1957, a ’55 Gullwing.

MP: So the car in front of us, I’ve been told, was originally your car back when you were getting started with Mercedes.

JG: I bought this in 1960, and I kept it until ’64’… I had it four years.

MP: So what’s the car doing back here again?

JG: The guy I sold it to kept it until 1970, and then he took it back to Ryan (a hot-rodder in Southern California), who painted it for me in ’61, so he took it back for a touch up as he was going to sell it. So then, Ryan bought it for $6,000. His son owns it now. He’s interested in selling it, so he brought it out for us to get it tuned up and ready for sale. It hasn’t run since the early ’90s, so we had to rebuild the brakes and do all the hoses and everything.

MP: So the paint on the car is from 1970, is the interior original?

JG: Yes, the only thing that’s been changed are the seat cushions.

MP: What’s your favorite thing about the 300SL? You’ve built a career working on them!

JG: Well, we drove them, that’s why I fell in love with the 300! I’ve been 140 mph in this car.

MP: Wow, how did that feel?

JG: Well, my brother was driving, but normally when I was out I would cruise at 90-120 [laughs]

MP: Did you keep someone with you to honk the horn?*

JG: Nope! I just usually would go out on my own in it. I remember going up to Lone Pine (the High Desert), it was the wintertime with nobody out there. I came to a spot in the road where I decided I really needed to slow it down, so I brought my speed down quite a bit, looked down, and was still going ninety!

MP: I guess that happens when you’re driving a race car, huh?

JG: Well, you can see all corners of the car when you’re driving, it just feels so good, it has the brakes, it has the power…

MP: And those brakes and power and handling must’ve been miles ahead of anything else on the roads at that point.

JG: Yeah, yeah.

MP: Any special memories with this particular car?

JG: I took my wife to the hospital to give birth to my two children in this car.

MP: Talk about arriving in style!

JG: Yeah! [Laughs] Then I started running out of seats right? It was OK with one kid because they could sit up on the shelf… I didn’t have fitted luggage. With two kids and my wife it started getting claustrophobic in there… so it was time to sell it and move on. I sold it for $6,500 in 1964. It’s just a good California car, it never left California and so it doesn’t rust.

JG: You could buy a car cheaper back east than in California, my dad was going to buy me a Packard and said, bring me back a Chevy because it’ll be the end of the year, so the new ones will be out. He brought back a ’56 Bel Air hardtop for $2,500. I graduated college in 1956 so I had that to drive. Do you know Von Dutch?

MP: Yes of course!

JG: I had Von Dutch pinstripe the Chevy…cost $15! [laughs] I took it to Ryan first, we nosed it and decked it, took off the door handles, and then had Dutch pinstripe it up.

MP: Sounds amazing, what was your color scheme?

JG: It was Dusk Plum and ivory. Neat color. No big engine, but had exhaust and the station wagon bumper. Then I sold that and bought a ’54 Austin Healey because my brother had one so I had to have one, so I sold the Chevy for that.

In ’57, I bought a brand new ’58 Chevy Impala, 3 carbs, stick. That was my car, and my brother then was going to sell his Gullwing because he was getting married and needed to buy a house. I couldn’t get out of the Chevy and into the Gullwing with any money, but I decided that was what I was going to do. So I started working at the service station my dad owned in Palmdale. My friend got out of the service, and he called me up said, “Why don’t you come down to Newport Beach and work in a machine shop?” since I had been working in a machine shop before.

So I drove down there one day while he was in class, and I looked in the Yellow Pages for machine shops, and I found one and drove over. I pulled in upfront to apply, and alongside the building was a Gullwing! So I went right in to fill in an application, and the owner interviewed me, and he asked me what kind of hobbies I had, to which I responded, “Well, I’m kind of a car guy…” [laughs]

Right after that, I asked him whose Gullwing it was, sitting out front. He asked how I knew what it was, and I told him, “My brother had one, and I’m gonna have one too,” to which he responded, “Not on the wages you get here!” I told him it might take a while, but I was going to have one eventually! So he hired me, I guess he figured out I was pretty determined, and started working at a bench as a machinist, but he’d come over to me and ask me to punch out of jobs to go take care of different things on the Gullwing…oil changes and whatnot. So I’d go punch out and take care of the car.

I bought this one in 1960 for $6,000 and on Fridays I’d drive it to work…but I’d park in the back. It was two years newer than my bosses car!

MP: What was his reaction when you pulled up in this the first time?

JG: [laughs] He told me, “Why don’t you buy a Porsche or something?” Eh, they didn’t appeal to me, I wanted a Gullwing! [laughs]

We became fast friends, he was a great guy. In 1963, he bought a split window Corvette, and I was in the process of selling my car, so I’d advertise both at one time, and people would come to see the duo. I sold mine for $6,500…and then the guy I sold it to sold it for $6,000! He lived in an apartment and so the car was sitting outside all the time, getting door dinged. I had the opportunity to buy it again, but when I went to look at it it was going to be too much of a stretch. I passed it up and that’s when Ryan, the current owner got it.

I have a dear friend who’s passed on now, that bought his car in 1960, he was single and after work we’d all meet up and have a beer or Coke and the service station. We’d all tell him, “Don you need to get a sports car, girls like sports cars!” He’d say, “Nah…” then he showed up one day and said he saw a car on a corner lot that he liked the look of, with louvres in the fenders, so he went down—and the salesman opened the door—and then he bought the car right away. His dad was a painting contractor and friends with a banker. He told the banker he wanted to borrow five thousand dollars to buy a foreign car, and the banker told him, “No no, buy a Cadillac”. He didn’t back down, so he got the loan, then as they socialized later on he would get to tell the banker the car was really worth $80,000!

* Fun fact: the Gullwing has a passenger-operated horn, a relic from its ancestor, the Carrera Panamericana winning race car

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